This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by Nick Costa.
INTERVIEWED MARCH 8, 2019 AT F.X. MATT BREWING CO.
Like many Rust Belt cities, Utica, New York’s heyday may be in its rear view mirror, but similar to Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, new life and energy is being breathed back into the once bustling industrial city. Through all the ups and downs however, there has been one constant on Utica’s ‘West End’: The F.X. Matt Brewing Co, makers of the popular Saranac and Utica Club beer brands.
The West End was once home to several breweries in the late 1800s, but like many similar facilities of the day, Prohibition closed their doors for good. Four generations, 130 years, and some strategic foresight later, the F.X. Matt brewery continues to churn out local staples, on-trend craft varieties, as well as contracted beers for some of the region’s largest brands.
We sat down with Nick Matt, the fourth generation of the Matt family to manage the brewery (since founder Francis Xavier Matt) to discuss the history of the fourth oldest family-owned brewery in the United States. And to ask how a brewery that’s been around since 1888 can still be relevant in today’s “what have you done for me lately?” craft culture.
Your family’s brewery is one of the oldest still operating in this country, what can you tell us about its history in the ‘craft’ space?
It all started in 1888–with my great great grandfather, Francis Xavier “F.X.” Matt, so four generations now. There were three distinct ‘tours’ of us brewing craft beer; even pre-Prohibition he was brewing IPAs, which was very unique at the time. Then there was the World War II-era: brewing porter, stock ale, pale ale, and cream ale, which again was unique for the time. Then there was the start of the Saranac brand in the mid 1980’s.
F.X. had worked at brewery in Baden-Baden, Germany before coming here to New York. He came over in 1878, and it was basically a leveraged buyout when he bought the brewery in 1888. t has been family-owned ever since.
So he bought the building and the brewery that was already here–and there were several other breweries that were in this area as well, correct?
There were a dozen at that time. This one–which had a couple different names prior to us taking over–was actually the smallest of them all at the time, but Prohibition helped thin the herd.
Had you always been part of the family brewery business, yourself?
I was a tour guide in high school. But I didn’t start back here until about six years ago. I also worked elsewhere for a dozen years. I was at a private bank for a while, and then at Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati.
It’s funny actually, because if you ask my dad now, he’d say there’s a rule that you have to work elsewhere until you’re 30. And you know, it really was their outside experiences that kept the brewery alive, having different perspectives, I think.
Describe the city of Utica to an outsider…
It was an industrial town back in the 1950’s and 60’s. There are some major plants that actually shut down, in the 80’s and 90’s. GE had a plant here, there was an Air Force base here…the city has lost a lot of jobs over the years. Utica was kind of shrinking for a long stretch of time, but there’s been this recent resurgence, which I feel really lucky coming back into.
The city’s just put it into place a new plan to bring in some outside companies that–to bring more high paying jobs coming back into the area. And there’s all this redevelopment happening in the city right now that’s creating this resurgence–you can feel this palpable energy that’s coming back, which is pretty cool.
We are amazed how few of these pre-Prohibition brewery buildings are still around–and yours is still a working facility.
There are only a handful of heritage breweries that still exist–that are still actually under the same ownership. We know Yuengling is technically ‘craft’, but we would say we are the only heritage craft brewery that exists still.
We survived Prohibition which is huge in itself. That’s 13 years without being able to make the product you built your business on.
What was the brewery making to remain open during Prohibition?
Near-beers and soft drinks. The story goes that if Prohibition had gone on one year longer, there is no way this place exists today. My great grandfather was part of six different businesses in the area, and he was subsidizing the brewery to keep it afloat because he loved the brewery so much.
Utica Club is one of those regional beer brands synonymous with Central New York. How much of that beer is being sold today?
It is a comparatively small brand now. We sell a couple hundred thousand cases, mostly local. It’s had a huge resurgence recently though and has been growing the last six years.
People do seem to be shifting back to some of those classic brands and styles.
The first beer sold…in the entire country?
In the country, yes. My great uncle was really involved in petitioning the repeal of Prohibition, so he knew exactly when the 18th Amendment was going to be signed into effect. So, he showed up with his paperwork and got the very first license to sell beer again, and sent a telegraph up to Utica telling ‘em to ship the beer. It was the first beer legally sold after Prohibition. Can’t say there was another beer that was sold before that…but ours was the first legally at least.
So Utica Club came into existence as a brand around that time?
Utica Club, the brand, didn’t exist pre-Prohibition, it was all ‘West End’ Brewing beer. It came to fruition during Prohibition as near beers and soft drinks. We had 13 years to build that ‘Utica Club’ brand equity. People liked the brand, so when we repealed, that was the brand the brewery started with–and it became our beer brand.
The brewery has over 130 years of history. How did the ‘Saranac’ name come to be more prominent than the ‘F.X. Matt Brewing’ brand?
Funny story… My uncle, F.X., was in Germany visiting the brewery that my great grandfather worked for before immigrating to America. As I’m told, he was ripping down the Autobahn at a 100mph with a German brewer, and he turns to the guy and asks, “How come Americans can’t make cars like Germans do?” The guy’s response was, “You make beer. How come you can’t make that like the Germans do?”
So he came back to New York and started a German-style beer brand. It was originally just ‘Saranac 1888’. There is a town just a couple hours north of Utica called Saranac, and there’s a railroad between here and Saranac–and so he named the beer after the 100th anniversary of the railroad. It was a bit of a random choice at the time… But, then we won ‘Best American Lager’ with that beer at The Great American Beer Festival. So, we decided to focus a little more attention on ‘Saranac’, if we did have the ‘best lager in America.’
And that was in the ‘80s?
He created that beer in 1985, but it wasn’t until ’91 that they won the gold medal. My father and cousin Fred came back to the brewery in ’89, and at the time we’re looking to make some aggressive transitions on where we were focusing our attention. We were struggling a little as a brewery, and that was the impetus to focus on the Saranac brand.
Describe to us the ‘style’ of beer you’re trying to make?
We always refer to it our beers as distinctive, but truly drinkable. ‘Distinctive’, because we are firmly in the craft space, the ‘truly drinkable’ because we try to make beers that are accessible. We want to make stuff that anyone can enjoy–which is a pretty strong departure from how a lot of craft breweries approach brewing. Sometimes they are trying to blow someone’s mind–trying to get as distinct and differentiated as you possibly can. We just want to make beers people can enjoy. We are a family of beer drinkers, and if you see us out, you’ll see us drinking beer…100% of the time. And we want to drink beer all night, so we make beer you can drink all night.
[Showing us bottles of Haus Lager]
Here is our Saranac Haus Lager. Cool story about this, is that it was the original recipe of the beer we made for employees working the line. This was pre-OSHA obviously–can’t do that anymore when operating heavy machinery! This was our original GABF winner. And then our Legacy IPA is a 1914 recipe from my great grandfather.
That has to be one of the earliest IPAs brewed in the US…
We haven’t been able to prove otherwise. So we claim that, and no one has shown us anything to dispute it.
How has that recipe changed since 1914?
When you look through the recipe from back then, they actually didn’t specify what the exact hops were.
Well that’s not so helpful!
They were, though, using the best available ingredients at that time, so we do the same. Proportions are all the same, but what was interesting about it was when we released it in 2013, and it was a lot lighter than IPAs were back then–it was really pale. That was unique six years ago, but maybe not as much anymore.
We’ve noticed you also brew contracted recipes, like some from Brooklyn Brewery, downstate. How much a part of the business is contracted?
Its a fairly important piece, yeah. It’s about 35% of the volume goes through the brewery. For us, we take a lot of pride in that, and we’re proud to put it out on display here. You know, these are brewers that are some of the best in America–that they trust us with their recipes says a lot. A lot of the big brands on the East Coast have come through here: Sam Adams, Long Trail, Harpoon…
How difficult is it to juggle so many different brands and touch points–house and otherwise?
Our brewers would certainly have an aggressive answer to that. There’s a lot of stuff going through the brewhouse at any given time. You take Brooklyn–they have 10 beers going through the system at anytime, plus we have a bunch of Saranac go through the system. There’s definitely a lot of complexity to it.
Tell us a bit about the brewhouse. We’re assuming a lot has changed over 130 years…
Well, we just put on a $30 million addition to the brewery. So, we’ve got plenty of new brew kettles. And then over on this side of the building [pointing] we put up a tank farm as well. Two reasons for it, these two copper kettles are still in service. They’re 500 barrels and so if you think most craft breweries are on 20-, maybe 50- or 100-barrel systems. With 500, you’re getting 6,000 cases at a time of anything you brew…
When was last time the brewery had had such a large capital improvement?
Some of these kettles…probably back in the 1950’s. So, sixty years later, and our Brewmaster is totally geeking out about getting to see some new equipment come through–it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The whole warehouse was also rebuilt in 2009. We had a pretty big fire here, that started on the canning line actually. There was someone welding and a spark landed on the line itself. It was an invisible fire–so it got 30 yards down the way, and caught a piece of packaging on fire, turning it into a massive fire. It required the whole warehouse to be overhauled. It’s good and bad, since it forced us to focus on modernizing.
What is the oldest active part of the brewery?
We have ‘Lincoln tanks’, from when Abe Lincoln was president. So there are piece from the 1850’s still in operation.
The footprint of everything here is so large. How big is the brewery?
We have added on so many different pieces at so many different times–so it can be hard to measure it exactly. What we’ve estimated is that it’s 326,000SF, with 350 rooms.
With all of these legacy beers, do you find yourself trying to fill holes in the marketplace with your own interesting beers and stories?
For sure. Legacy IPA and Haus Lager are probably the two right now that have a true heritage backstory to ‘em. “What was the origin of this beer? And why is it relevant today?” We’d love to have a bunch more of those beers that fit that bill. We’re literally in the process right now of saying, “What else can we bring to market that can accomplish that?” It’s totally unique. No other brewery in the country has a built-in story like ours–and when there’re 7,000 breweries–to have something unique like that, we should really leverage it. ‘Heritage’ is nice, but, what does that really mean…?
How do you how do you balance those expectations for a consumer–a beer with history that’s still a relevant choice today?
That’s exactly it, it is a balance. We always say, “You don’t stay in business for 130 years unless you’re putting something in front of the consumer that they want to buy.” That’s the only way you stay in business and stay relevant. We have to find that balance–between the expectation of what we are and what we should be, and make sure to stay true to those roots.
We’ve done a whole bunch of innovative stuff the last couple years. We did a we did a cold brew coffee lager…which again–it was still that brewing philosophy of distinctive and drinkable–but it’s balanced and we’ll hear about it from our drinkers if we go ‘too far,’ with something. Oh, people will let ya know!
So then, what are you drinking when you’re not drinking your own beer?
Water. Craft beer is about exploring and trying different beers, but I do think there’s something to representing that we make great beer and having people see me drinking our own beer, a great majority of the time.When I travel I do like when I get outside of markets we are distributed and obviously we do a lot of tasting inside of our four walls to understand the competition and see what we’re up against.
Photographed and authored by Nick Costa.
A huge thank you to Nick Matt for showing us around historic F.X. Matt Brewery and to the Brew Central NY for partnering on this trip to Utica, NY.